Have you ever felt like you were destined for something? Not that there’s some grand master plan laid out for you, but that a bunch of small events in your life were preparation for something greater? It sounds strange to say it, but I feel that way about China, especially Chinese food. I’ll explain.
The farther I have been from my parents, the more I see how they have influenced my culinary palate. Food was a big deal growing up; my Mom loves, loves, loves to cook. She is renowned for making huge fantastic dinners and inviting throngs of the hungry to partake until they feel about to burst. My Dad, brothers and I were happy guinea pigs in her mostly successful cooking schemes. She would sit with a pile of cookbooks in her free time, making notes on what we liked and didn’t like, and what she wanted to make next and for whom. In some of my Mom’s favorite cookbooks she not only has notes about us, but about family friends who would come weekly on their designated evening for dinner.
Some of my best memories are of standing on a chair when I was too small to reach the counter and “helping” make dinner for company. I would be the Stirrer, the Measurer, or the Pourer. The excuse, “I don’t like that”, was met with “You don’t know unless you try it. TRY IT.” My Dad set a good example in this. On the rare occasions he did not like something, he did his best to finish it anyway … so we followed suit. There was no dessert otherwise. Cooking has always been a way Mom expresses love. We show love back by eating her culinary wonders. It’s music to her ears to hear us ask for something in one of her cook books.
Fast forward 25 years and I was in China. Who would have thought? There’s a lot of good food there and (I have to admit) a lot of it I didn’t want to try at first. But then I heard my Mom say, “Try it.”
Chinese food is mostly very healthy because it’s heavy on the veggies. Most people do not eat a whole lot of meat. If they do, it’s of the leaner variety … with the exception of Yangrou Chuan’r (say like: Yawng Ro Chwar). Yangrou Chuan’r is lamb kabobs with an extra chunk of fat on the skewer. My husband and I can say that the best food we have had in China is from the Xingjiang province. It’s heavily influenced by mid-eastern cooking, but is a nice balance between familiar flavors and the unknown. Our favorite China meal for us is yangrou chuan’r, homemade yogurt, cucumber and tomato salad with garlic, naan bread and something (I forget the name) with lamb, bread and onions all fried together.
We also ate a lot of tofu and many varieties of mushrooms. While I could eat plates and plates of broccoli, my husband loved the dry-fried, spicy green beans. So when going out, we got our own veggies and we didn’t have to share.
I can now say I like frog, cold duck, and donkey ( Northern China specialty). As for other Northern foods, jioazi (steamed veggie or pork dumplings) are delicious. My other half really loved jianbings, which are like a crepe pancake with egg. A vegetarian would be quite happy in China. While most Chinese people don’t understand what it means not to eat meat, it’s not hard to find dishes without it. Buddhist monks don’t eat meat, at least they’re not supposed to. It’s rare for someone to be a vegetarian by preference. I know a few happy vegetarians who survive in China quite happily; despite their family insisting that pork or fish isn’t meat and should be eaten to maintain good health.
Most of the bad food experiences I’ve had (there haven’t been many) were because I thought I was getting something else when I ordered it. I think that just adds credibility to the idea that sometimes it’s better not to know what you’re eating until after you tried it. On other occasions I told myself, “Well, it’s hot and seems to be cooked through, so at least I know I probably won’t get sick”. And sometimes I said politely, as I was taught, “I don’t care for that flavor, thank you” when it came to fruit juice with milk drinks, beef and chicken hearts, egg soup, chicken feet, red bean soup and, even though it’s sacrilegious to say, the ultimate Chinese comfort food, rice porridge.
This is a different category all unto itself. In the U.S. we don’t have too many gelatinous food substances, except Jell-O, that we can tolerate. Aspics (Julia Child’s failed attempt to bring jellied meat into the American kitchen) being the least tolerated. But China has quite a few and this food group is one I am not prepared to conquer anytime soon. As of now, I still don’t have the fortitude to try jellyfish salad, sea cucumbers, seaweed jelly, fish eyeballs and pig intestines (while not gelatinous, it sounds like a sure fire way to get hepatitis). I know that if, or rather, when I’m confronted with these items in the future, I’ll hear my Mom’s words, “Try it.” ringing in my ears. I’m pretty comfortable putting that off for as long as possible.
See Myra’s personal blog: The Interactive Expat